The question was whether the City of Philadelphia enjoys political subdivision immunity against claims of adverse possession. The context, in City of Philadelphia v. Galdo, — A.3d —-, 2019 WL 4686781 (September 26, 2019), was an ejectment action that the City filed against Galdo, who claimed ownership to a parcel of property by adverse possession.
The City obtained title to the parcel at issue in 1974 through condemnation for transit purposes, specifically the construction of I-95, which required rerouting the elevated Market-Frankford train line. The City has not physically occupied the parcel or performed any maintenance since the completion of the train line in the 1970s.
In 1989, Galdo purchased a home directly across the street from the parcel, which he claimed was populated by prostitutes and derelicts. Between 1990 and 2014, Galdo cleared the parcel of weeds and trash, poured a concrete slab for parking his vehicles, poured a second concrete slab for storing materials and fenced it in, installed a fire pit and a picnic table affixed to the ground, created a driveway on the parcel, planted two maple trees, built a carport with metal poles that he later replaced with a wooden pavilion, converted the fire pit into a brick barbeque, placed two oversized trailers to store gardening tools, installed a sand volleyball court and horseshoe pit, planted grass seed and a willow tree, and built a tree-house deck on the parcel. Galdo never obtained any permits to make improvements to the parcel, did not pay property taxes, and did not provide evidence that he insured the parcel. The City had not given Galdo permission to possess the land.
In April 2014, the City filed an ejectment action against Galdo. Galdo responded by filing a counterclaim to quiet title, claiming ownership of the property by adverse possession. Galdo contended that he had been in continuous and exclusive possession of the parcel without the City’s consent or authorization since September of 1989 and that the parcel had not constituted a public use since 1976.
Following a bench trial, the Common Pleas Court found in favor of the City, holding that the City was immune as a political subdivision and that the parcel was devoted to a public use, as the City had obtained the parcel through its eminent domain power.
The Commonwealth Court vacated the trial court’s judgment and remanded the matter for trial on Galdo’s adverse possession claim, viewing the primary issue as whether a claim of adverse possession can lie against the City when the City’s only use of the parcel during the statutory period was to hold it for possible future sale. The court acknowledged that, unlike the Commonwealth, political subdivisions, such as municipalities, are not immune from claims of adverse possession unless the property at issue is devoted to a public use.
The Supreme Court noted that, as a general rule, political subdivisions may be subject to claims of adverse possession, except where the property is devoted to a public use, which is decided based upon the individualized facts of each case. The Court explained that there exists no authority holding that condemned property formerly devoted to a public use but later held for resale constitutes a public use. The Court posited that the City would only be selling the property because the public use no longer exists. Absent the public use, the Court reasoned, a municipality’s holding of abandoned property, in this case for decades, offers no benefit to the public because the public is not occupying the property in any way, no one is paying property taxes on the property, and the neighborhoods in which the dormant properties are located becoming blighted. Further, the Court determined that, requiring the City to intervene within 21 years is not an oppressive burden.
Affirming the Commonwealth Court, the Supreme Court held that political subdivisions may be subject to claims of adverse possession except where the property is devoted to a public use, which may lapse or be abandoned. The Court found that the public use of the parcel to assist in the construction of a state highway lapsed in the late 1970s and the only purported public use proffered by the City thereafter was the holding of the parcel for resale. The Court determined that condemned property that is held for eventual resale by a political subdivision after the original public purpose for the condemnation has lapsed does not constitute a public use of the property that affords a municipality immunity from adverse possession claims.
Patricia Starner has more than 20 years of appellate experience, having served as a staff attorney to Chief Justice Emeritus Ronald Castille of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania from 1996 to 2014, and Chief Justice Saylor from 2014 to 2016. Ms. Starner drafted dozens of majority and responsive opinions and reviewed and made recommendations to the Court on thousands of petitions for allowance of appeal.